Years ago in my grandfather's basement I found some shoe boxes brimming with black and white photos. His brothers, hair slick and cigarettes lit, standing next to a Ford sedan, doing their damnedest to look like they were up to no good. Or caught mid-laugh, leather soles sliding in a rare East Tennessee snowfall, hands full of the stuff, arms cocked and ready to throw at the camera.
His sisters, too: hair gorgeous and legs long, sitting on someone’s fender in the summer sun, looking for all the world like trouble with a smile. Pistols.
They all look like they got away with something. In a way, they did. They escaped disease and malnutrition and the dark, begging poverty of depression-era Union County. Broke out of that pit in the arms of a mother who cleaned and cooked and plead and stole to keep her kids fed.
Sharp eyes and cheekbones, crooked grins. Same ones I see in the mirror. But even if I know the names, the people are still strangers. My father grew up in a sea of first- and second cousins and aunts and uncles. Outside of his two brothers, my uncles, I did not.
Our family is large, and if we were close once we haven’t been for a generation. It's difficult to keep up with the ever-branching masses, impossible to find a reason to get together, scattered as we are. And there’s some other bullshit—scars and woundings and drama. Things we’ve held onto past their point of soreness because we’re proud or stubborn or stupid. Because we're southern. And so it seems like we only see each other at funerals.
Which is why it was surprising when my second cousin first removed—my grandfather's sister's daughter—sent us a message. She said she met me once when I was five, that she lives outside of Santa Fe and that we were welcome if we ever found ourselves out that way.
Last week, we visited. Said goodbye to Big Bend and wandered up out of Texas. Spent a night on BLM land outside of Guadalupe National Forrest, then parked ourselves in the Capitan Mountains for a few nights. Watched a cold front frost the peaks white and listened to the rain on the roof and worked by campfire light. Marched ourselves across the flat and empty desert: Roswell, Corona, Encino. Into the mountains at Santa Fe; on to Los Alamos.
I haven’t had my breath taken by a place like this in years. Not since I first put eyes on the Blue Ridge. The highway drops to a two-lane as it scrambles up the mesa, nothing but a stern drop off the pavement's edge to the red canyon floor below. We arrived on the heels of late spring snowstorm, and the mountains that ring the town were still dressed a brilliant white against the blue sky. The town passes in a blink, a smattering of businesses and parks. The bike lanes and sidewalks are packed with a surprising number of smiling faces. The place has come a long way since it built the bomb that incinerated two cities half a world away.
We found my cousin’s house on a bright street. Parked the truck and rang the bell. She answered the door with her two daughters at her heels. For the first time in my 30 years I understood the root of familiarity, saw family in the eyes of a stranger. The years of living far from Macon haven’t pulled the Georgia from her lips when she says, “come on in.” It's the sound of home.
We spend the next three days getting to know her sprawling family. Three wild and tender boys, two wise and beautiful girls, a smart and affable husband who makes the heft of fatherhood seem weightless. After weeks in the wilderness with just the three of us, the noise and color and life of it is a warm shock. Our daughter takes to the chaos like she was bred for it, toddling from cousin to cousin, chewing and drooling on everything in sight.
And we get to know her, too: her PhD in child psychology, her brush with cancer. And later, the decision to try something that scared her witless—rock climbing—and how she took to it like a weed. She’s an instructor now, and she runs her hand over every stone she sees, feeling for how best to hold it.
I’ve wondered how my great-grandmother, a widowed woman with five children, survived the hateful days of the 1930s, I know now, because I see it in my cousin’s eyes, in her broad heart. There's a pillar strength in her—a strength I hope my daughter finds in herself.
And she'll have a chorus of cousins to show her. This is family we would have lost if we’d never left our driveway, never left the idiot smallness of that life. It breaks me open, the treasure we neglected, for no reason past failing to put one foot in front of the other.